A Samoan Airline has become the first to link its airfare to passengers' weight, charging heavier customers a higher ticket price.
The Sydney Morning Herald explains that passengers on Samoa Air, a small regional airline serving the Samoan islands in the South Pacific, are asked to punch in their body weight and the weight of their luggage when booking. Rates range from $1 (Australian) per kilogram on short flights to $4.16 per kilogram on longer ones between Samoa and American Samoa. Passengers and their luggage are weighed again when they get to the airport to make sure they weren't fibbing.
"We at Samoa Air are keeping airfares fair, by charging our passengers only for what they weigh," explains the airline's website. "Your weight plus your baggage items, is what you pay for. Simple."
In an interview with ABC Radio, the airline's CEO likewise framed it as an issue of fairness, noting that "there are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just a kilo is a kilo is a kilo."
Kilos are an issue in Samoa, which has high rates of obesity. That said, it's not just the obese who will find themselves paying more for their flight. Since this is strictly about saving money on fuel, only weight matters, which means that a tall, well-built passenger will still wind up paying more just by virtue of being bigger. So Samoa Air's claim that "you decide how much (or little) your ticket will cost" isn't exactly correct.
Could such a scheme come to the U.S.?
Samoa Air is a unique case -- it operates smaller aircraft in a country with particularly heavy people, so passenger weight and its impact on fuel efficiency is a big concern. But weight is an issue for large American airlines as well, as evidenced by the big fees they charge for carry-on luggage. And over the last few years we've seen several controversies pop up regarding very large travelers -- Southwest, for instance, was sued for telling an obese passenger that she had to buy two seats.
Despite this, we're skeptical that pay-by-the-pound airline tickets could catch on in the U.S.; while extra fees are commonplace and travelers have become accustomed to being poked and prodded by airport security, being weighed like a stack of bologna at the deli counter might be a step too far. However, at least one economist thinks that charging passengers by wieght is a good idea. Last fall, Bharat P. Bhatta, a professor of economics at Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway, looked at pay-by-weight airfare pricing and concluded that "the model can be technically and economically feasible to implement and its proper implementation may provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large." He does concede, though, that "the nature of this pricing model is potentially contentious."
That's putting it lightly.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.